Public safety outweighs academic freedom, committee rules

Scientists should agree not to publish experiments into increasing the virulence of potentially dangerous microbes such as the bird flu virus until wider society can agree on “the balance that must be struck between academic freedom and protecting the greater good of humankind from potential danger”.

January 31, 2012

This is the view of the US committee that recommended the partial redaction of two papers accepted by the elite journals Science and Nature describing mutations in the H5N1 avian influenza virus that make it transmissible between ferrets and, possibly, humans.

A committee established by the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended at the end of last year that the papers’ full results and experimental details should be redacted and only be distributed to fellow researchers.

In an article explaining its conclusions, published jointly in Science and Nature today, the committee says “revolutionary” advances in scientists’ ability to manipulate microbial genomes have brought the life sciences to a “crossroads” similar to that faced by physics in the wake of nuclear weapons research in the 1940s.

They say that while the advances raise the possibility of greater control of infectious diseases, “there is also a growing risk that the same science will be deliberately misused and that the consequences could be catastrophic”.

The committee of 22 senior scientists says that full publication of the H5N1 papers would not be “a responsible action” because it could “provide information to some person, organization, or government that would help them to develop similar mammal-adapted influenza A/H5N1 viruses for harmful purposes.

“We believe that as scientists and as members of the general public, we have a primary responsibility ‘to do no harm’ as well as to act prudently and with some humility,” they say.

They acknowledge that such research could enhance preparedness for a natural outbreak of humanly transmissible bird flu.

But they urge scientists should imitate the voluntary moratorium adopted in the 1970s by researchers into recombinant DNA until guidance on “safe and responsible conduct” could be developed.

“With proper diligence and rapid achievement of a consensus on a proper path forward, this could have little detrimental effect on scientific progress but significant effect on diminishing risk,” they say.

Earlier this month 40 researchers working in the field committed themselves to a 60-day moratorium on research into highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses.

But in an article on Nature’s website last week the senior author of the paper accepted by the journal argued that it should be published in full.

Yoshihiro Kawaoka, professor of virology at the University of Tokyo, said there was already enough information publicly available to allow someone to make a transmissible H5N1 virus, while efforts to restrict access to full results to vetted scientists would be difficult to enforce and would slow down research.

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